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As movements recede in Jewish life, Reform and Conservative seminaries shrink

Enrollment at non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries has been on a downward trajectory for years, but the data shows an especially alarming pattern for schools affiliated with major Jewish movements.

While the overall number of students studying to become non-Orthodox rabbis in the United States has only gradually declined over the past decade, a Forward analysis found that seminaries affiliated with major denominations have suffered steep drop-offs. At the same time, smaller independent schools have seen their enrollments steadily increase.

“The culture, values and worldview embodied by movement institutions do not resonate with a lot of students,” said Rabbi Benay Lappe, who runs an independent yeshiva in Chicago. “The non-movement rabbinical schools allow space for the students to figure out what kind of Jewish future is going to work.”

“People are less interested in binaries and boxes,” said Rabbi Rebecca Weintraub

The challenges facing seminaries, particularly those affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements, tracks with American Jews’ shift away from formal institutions and denominations. Forty-one percent of Jews under 29 said they do not affiliate with any particular branch of Judaism, according to a Pew Research Center study released last year, compared to just 22% of those over 65.

The major non-Orthodox denominations — Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist — still dominate American Jewish life. But the difficulty in attracting rabbinical students, especially in the Conservative and Reform movements, which together account for the vast majority of non-Orthodox synagogues, portends a future in which independent institutions play an increasingly important role.

“People are less interested in binaries and boxes even though they’re still seeking that kind of connection and spirituality,” said Rebecca Weintraub, an assistant rabbi at the non-denominational B’nai Jeshurun in New York City.

Still, the number of Jews who report belonging to a synagogue has remained steady over the last 20 years, and there is reason to believe that the rabbinic pipeline is shrinking faster than synagogue membership.

The Conservative movement warned its congregations in December that many of them would not be able to fill vacant rabbi positions, with roughly 80 synagogues looking to hire one of the 50 or 60 rabbis available.

That announcement was followed by other signs of a reckoning among Jewish seminaries. The Reform movement announced earlier this month that it was considering ending rabbinic training at its historic campus in Cincinnati. And the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, a Conservative seminary, said this week that it would slash tuition by nearly 80% to attract more students after enrollment plunged from 56 students 10 years ago to 34 this year.

Sounding the alarm

Andrew Rehfeld at HUC alumni event

Andrew Rehfeld, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, addresses alumni at a Shabbat event in 2019. Courtesy of Hebrew Union College

But while total enrollment at the six largest non-Orthodox seminaries has declined 15% since 2010, the earliest year for which most schools could provide data, those numbers have been far more concerning for schools affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements.

Enrollment at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which operates three campuses to train Reform rabbis, has fallen nearly 30% since 2008, when it had 194 students. Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s primary college, has dropped 43% since 2010.

While these trends surfaced in a 2015 analysis of seminary ordinations by the Forward, the patterns have only deepened over the last 7 years. Hebrew College, an independent seminary in Boston, eclipsed JTS for the first time in 2020 and now has 76 rabbinic students compared to 63 at JTS.

“JTS is taking a leadership role in a collaborative effort, involving all branches of the Conservative Movement, to increase the pipeline into the rabbinate,” Beth Mayerowitz, director of communications for JTS, said in an email. “JTS believes this is a pivotal moment to address the increased demand that we’ve seen for helping professions and spiritual leadership amid COVID-19.”

The Reform movement has also taken the need for change seriously. Last fall Rabbi Andrea Weiss, provost of Hebrew Union College, wrote a brief policy paper that cited 26 articles all making the point that all Jewish seminaries were facing a crisis.

“This research shows that HUC is not alone in needing to ask existential questions and make bold, difficult changes,” Weiss wrote. Even Hebrew College, which has had strong enrollment, sold its campus in 2018 to reduce operating costs and alleviate debt.

(The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, the leading modern Orthodox rabbinical college, did not respond to questions about its enrollment, nor did ALEPH, the Jewish Renewal movement’s umbrella organization, which operates an ordination program.)

Whither the denominations?

Hebrew College ordination

Newly-ordained rabbis during a 2019 ceremony at Hebrew College in Boston. Courtesy of Hebrew College

Lappe, the Chicago rabbi, runs SVARA, a seminary that focuses on Talmud study and caters to queer Jews. She said that rabbinic education had not caught up to a generation of young Jews that is far more diverse in identity, and flexible in practice and belief, than the institutions established to ordain them.

As an example, she said that JTS and the Conservative movement continue to require an obedience to Halacha, or Jewish law, that few non-Orthodox Jews agree with, while the Reform movement has eschewed such practices entirely, despite many young Jews having an interest in it.

“We’re living in a time when it is unclear what the Jewish future is going to look like and I think that students know that and so they’re reluctant to commit to an ideology,” Lappe said.

Observers say that falling interest in the rabbinate stems from a number of other factors

Observers say that falling interest in the rabbinate stems from a number of other factors, including limited employment opportunities for graduates. While the growth of independent seminaries may point to an interest in rabbinic roles that are less rigid than the traditional congregational pulpit, synagogues remain the primary institutions offering lucrative jobs to new rabbis.

Rabbi Ellen Flax, who led a joint fellowship for students of Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that there were limited options for graduates who were inspired to create or join an untraditional community that can’t muster the resources of a traditional congregation.

“Our whole funding model for congregations and communities is that you need to have a certain number of people,” said Flax. “You can have a community of 100 people, but that’s not enough — in most cases — to fund a $100,000 salary and facilities.”

Independent seminaries have seen graduates go on to lead some unique Jewish communities, including The Kitchen in San Francisco, which is staffed by Jessica Kate Meyer, who was ordained at Hebrew College and has a rabbinical intern, Chelsea Mandell, who attends the Academy for Jewish Religion California, although founding rabbi Noa Kushner graduated from Hebrew Union College. Sixth & I, the Jewish center in Washington, D.C., was led for many years by Shira Stutman, who was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which, although a movement seminary, places many graduates at independent institutions.

These kinds of institutions, though, primarily exist in major metropolitan areas and are still far outnumbered by traditional synagogues. But they’re increasing in number, just as synagogues that choose not to affiliate with movements see barriers removed to their success as American Jews place less importance on denomination — and it becomes easier to hire rabbis without the help of the Union for Reform Judaism or United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Clifford Kulwin, rabbi emeritus of B’nai Abraham in northern New Jersey, recalled being invited to address Hebrew College in the early aughts about the challenge of overseeing one of the largest non-affiliated congregations in the country. Even then, Kulwin said, he could think of only two: finding a youth movement for the temple’s children, and navigating the hiring process for rabbis because B’nai Abraham was shut out of the placement programs offered by the movement seminaries.

The second one is no longer a problem: The year after he retired, B’nai Abraham hired a Hebrew College graduate as assistant rabbi.

“People are much more interested in being a part of a place where they feel comfortable and at home rather than paying attention to ideology,” Kulwin said. “Movements just aren’t that big a deal any more.”

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